Thursday, August 24, 2017

Second wind

I've finished my suite of New School history talks, each with its own pleasures. All were versions of a new take, which puts the problem of The New School's relationship to Parsons front and center. Yes, the problem, and as a problem. How can we tell a story about so hybrid an object as TNS? When Parsons merged with The New School in 1970, one is 74 years old, the other 51 - a late marriage. And it took another four decades for the merger really to be accepted, even celebrated. (I trot out Michael Walzer's understanding of the message in the forty years the people of Israel had to spend wandering the desert between the leeks and onions of Egypt and the milk and honey of Canaan: it takes two generations for a culture to change.)

The New School which loudly touts design thinking, liberal arts, performance and civic engagement as obvious and necessary partners is actually only in its first decade - though we bring to bear over a century of complicated legacies. The temptation is to tell a story in which the 51, 74 and 73 years the New School, Parsons and the Mannes School of Music (respectively) spent doing their own thing were all pointing toward their ultimate fusion and synergy, but it may be truer to see that synergy as entirely retrospective, and fueled by the momentum of these distinct pasts. What's happening here now is happening here now.

Above are the notes I took when I began today's talk (to new full-time faculty) asking them what they knew of New School history. Sure enough, we got a myth about The New School (founded by exiles from the Frankfurt School in the 1930s), a factoid about Parsons (someone named Chase in the 1890s), some interesting early New School theater history (Strasberg and an early Stanislavksy production of The Cherry Orchard)... and wasn't New School mainly about continuing education?

The 1919 story, and my rhapsodies about "arts as social research" in the 1920s and 1930s, were new to everyone. I offered them as a "better myth" than the ones focused on academic freedom and social science - better for us as we try to make sense of our current hybrid existence. People seemed to appreciate the rawness of the story, its contingency, its open-endedness. For new faculty, as for incoming students, it's an invitation not just to be part of some already defined thing, but to help realize the potentialities of our chaotic wealth of legacies as they finally commingle.

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